Feb 27 2013

Chrysler’s Chrysler Chronicle I: Restoration Begins

In an exciting new series for VanderbiltCupRaces.com, historian and coachwork specialist Walt Gosden will be providing reports on the restoration of the 1937 Chrysler's Chrysler. The first article documents the initial steps in restoring this classic car.


Howard Kroplick

The Chrysler’s Chrysler Chronicle: Restoration Begins

By Walt Gosden

The restoration process of the 1937 Chrysler Imperial Custom series C - 15 town car by LeBaron has begun at Automotive Restorations Inc. shop in Lebanon, New Jersey. Shop owner Steve Babinsky and his team started work in January 2013. A series of photographs will record the work being done on the car over the many months it will take to properly return the car to the condition it was in when new.

Cars built prior to World War II saw their coachwork/car bodies use a lot of wood for the structural fame work to which the sheet metal that covered it was nailed to. This was true for production line mass produced lower priced cars that were bought by the general public for transportation as well as custom designed low volume luxury cars. The larger the car, the longer it took to make.

The construction of a car body can be compared to architecture. Houses built in developments such as Levittown and large estate country houses both basically have their start with a wood frame on a masonry foundation. The level and cost of the material that covers the frames - vinyl or aluminum siding outside and sheetrock walls inside on tract housing , or brick, stone and stucco on the outside with lathe and plaster indie of a custom home reflect what it was like to build a production car vs. a custom luxury car.

The Chrysler Imperial town car we see here was designed and built by LeBaron. The Briggs Mfg. Co. was the major builder of steel production car bodies supplying many cars manufacturers with stampings or complete (but not painted or trimmed) bodies prior to WWII. In early 1927 Briggs purchased LeBaron to add to their company a division that served the wealthy who could afford to pay for a custom designed and built body. Briggs had a solid connection with Chrysler Corporation and had since the late 1920s supplied the majority of their car bodies. By the late 1930s the demand for custom built cars had diminished severely as the affects of the Great Depression wore on. There were still people who wanted a custom built car and Walter Chrysler chose LeBaron to build this town car for his wife Della.

Fast forward to 2013 and the town car after decades of neglect and extremely poor storage is now set to be returned with a sympathetic restoration to its former glory by one of the premier restoration shops in the USA.

The first point of order will be to stabilize what is there on the car. The sheet metal is amazingly free of dents and rot (body is of aluminum skin, fenders are steel) but due to the very heavy rear doors, the pair of small hinges that held them to the b pillar have pulled away and they cannot close properly. On the left side one of the hinges has pulled completely away from the body.

This condition has existed for at least 35 + years as I first saw it in this state when the car was in storage at the Long Island Automotive Museum in Southampton, N.Y.. At that time the car was in a state that would it would not have required a restoration, except for the hinges. The condition of the paint, plating, and upholstery were good enough to preserve, that is not the case now.

The first part of the restoration will be to remove the rear doors and repair the body structure and remount the doors so they open and close easily without sagging. To accomplish this the entire interior in the rear compartment has been removed , this includes upholstery, window moldings trim, vanities, decorative woodwork etc. This will allow room to get to the B pillars for repair, also access to the decorative speed streak trim at eye level on the exterior which are attached to the body by threaded rods with nuts.

All the book matched birds eye maple veneer on the interior division panel is 95% intact. The original shellac clear finish that was on the wood turned to a milky film like appearance due to decades of moisture penetrating the surface and then being trapped beneath it. A similar situation occurs on furniture when a hot cup or plate is put on a table and when lifted off you see a white ring or ghost of where the cup sat.

The right top corner of the division panel decorative woodwork that has been removed shows a dark area where the finish has been worn away. This makes sense as the car when parked at the curb would see most people enter from the right side and automatically place their hand on that edge to steady themselves as they entered the car before they sat down in the back seat.

The wood window and circular vanity frames of bird’s eye maple were steam bent to take their shape and clamped into place on a steel frame contoured to form them. These custom handmade forms were crafted and used once for this one of body.

The inside of the body below the roof line is painted with a tar like sound deadening material. Large wood top bows go from side to side under the solid roof and attach to substantial lumber of the body structural framework. Metal brackets are screwed to help keep it all together. The bulb in the right side vanity was installed and then the upholstery tacked in and vanity case installed over this. There would have been no way to replace the bulb had it burned out without removing the upholstery.

The wood used to create the doors consisted of an outer frame with planks screwed horizontally to the sides to make a solid pane, all of which was covered by upholstery. A mechanism that ran a steel cord through the door to the chauffeur’s area could be activated by a switch to lock the rear doors from the front seat compartment. The division window could be operated by a power switch or manually by a handle.

Discovering how the car was constructed in 1937 is proving to be a jaw dropping amazing journey as this innovative art deco masterpiece starts to yield its secrets during its restoration.

Hemmings Classic Car. Walter E. Gosden: The Classic Car Club of America's beloved coachwork historian Allow 1-minute for the download.


Mar 01 2013 Ted 10:38 PM

Hi Howard   I was reading an article in Newsday today,Classic Car Doctor by Steve Linden and was thinking about you and your Chriysler being restored,about the things that can go wrong in the process of it,that it would cost more than it’s worth and the car will not be original,like what you were saying last nite. So what it boils down to,don’t piece meal it together and have it come out wrong after paying for it,get the whole thing done the right way and have piece of mind and the car will be be back to it’s original condition again. Some people don’t find out until It’s too late,but luckily you found out at the very start

Mar 03 2013 Phil Benincasa 10:14 AM

I waited with bated breath to see when an if and to what extent restoration would be done to this piece of art. Now I’m just as anxious to follow the progress.
Personally I think your decision to restore is the right way to go.
Thank you.

Mar 05 2013 Reginald Boland 2:43 PM

I am so pleased that this car is in your hands and the decision has been made to restore it!  I fell in love with this car when I first got into the hobby in 1982 with my ‘39 Plymouth sedan and bought Dammann’s book, 70 Years of Chrysler.  I kept watching out for the car for years hoping it had survived - and survive it did!  There is a ‘38 Custom Imperial LeBaron currently for sale at the Hyman Ltd site.  Interesting to compare the interior shots of the two cars.  I will be watching with great interest.  Congratulations and best of luck to you.

Mar 16 2013 Ted 9:15 PM

I know it might be a little to soon yet,but do you have any updates on how the Chrysler is coming alone. I’m sure you’ll keep us all informed of the progress as soon as you find out and I realize that it’s going to be a long time to get the job done the right way. Thanks Howard

Mar 17 2013 Howard Kroplick 11:11 AM

Ted, I will have an update later this month.

Mar 17 2013 Ted 5:33 PM

Thanks again Howard,for the quick response.

Apr 06 2013 Ted 10:43 PM

Still to soon for an update on the chrysler? I watched the films you have of it,very interesting,really a classic car the it was built and how you’re trying to keep it the same.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.